Start off with letters written from Helen Schlegel to her sister Margaret about her (Helen’s) stay with the Wilcoxes. She’s fallen in love with youngest son Paul, which sparks a minor scandal. Mrs. Wilcox, the elm-tree symbolizing everything old and passing in England, settles everything. Time passes. Helena and Meg, and their younger brother Tibby (figure for Forster), go to a Beethoven concert where they meet Leonard Bast because Helen accidentally took is umbrella. The Wilcoxes move to London and Meg and Mrs. Wilcox become friends. Meg almost goes to Howard’s End but Mrs. Wilcox dies (she leaves the house to Meg, but Henry burns the letter). Mr. Wilcox pursues and eventually marries Meg while the Schlegels are moving everything out of their childhood home. Meanwhile, Leonard, who had been advised by Henry Wilcox to change jobs, loses it all together and teeters on the abyss. Helen is upset with Wilcox, who dismisses the lower classes, whereas Helen has fairly naive notion of charitable efficacy. Meg and Henry go up North to one of his houses. Helen shows up with Bast and his wife, both of whom are basically homeless , and Helen sleeps with Bast, gets pregnant, and leaves the country. It turns out that Henry had slept with Mrs. bast while married to Mrs. Wilcox. Helen eventually returns, pregnant. Tibby accidentally tells Charles Wilcox that Leonard Bast is the father. Henry tires to take control of the situation from a moral high ground that Meg undercuts by drawing attention to their parallel situations. Charles rushes back to Howard’s End at the same time that Leonard has turned up to apologize. He hits him the dull edge of the family sword and a bunch of books fall on him. He dies from a heart attack and Charles goes to prison. Henry never recovers. Meg, Helen, Henry and Helen’s child all live at Howard’s End, while London continues to encroach.
The mask fell off the city, and she [Margaret] saw it for what it really is—a caricature of infinity. The familiar barriers, the street along which she moved, the houses between which she had made her little journeys for so many years, became negligible suddenly. Helen seemed one with the grimy trees and the traffic and the slowly flowing slabs of mud. She had accomplished a hideous act of renunciation and returned to the One. Margaret’s own faith held firm. She knew the human soul will be merged, if it be merged at all, with the stars and the sea. Yet she felt her sister had been going amiss for some years. It was symbolic the catastrophe should come now, while rain fell slowly.
An instance of the “One” that does so much work in this novel: Forster is self-conscious about the position his characters and his narrator take up towards reality–the one is only as inclusive as it is exclusive. And connect this to the “bridge party” in Passage to India, where someone “needs” to be excluded if it is going to mean anything. The exclusion in Howard’s End is overt:
We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk. (45)
Leonard Bast is constantly teetering on the borders of the narrative scope, “a goblin footfall” intimating the abrupt intrusion of the “unseen” on the “seen.” That these metaphysical categories, associated with the Schlegel “German” social idealism, map neatly onto the exclusionary politics of London society is exactly the point. In this way, it can be connected to “one of us” in Conrad’s Lord Jim, or the more overtly compromised “good people” in Ford’s The Good Soldier. Meg becomes conscious of the economic underpinnings that make possible the point of view assumed by the narrator: “islands of money” that cannot be shaken is what distinguishes her from Leonard, who always looks into the abyss. The concept of the abyss can be connected to New Grub Street‘s Reardon, who likens the process of writer’s block to walking near both a creative and economic abyss.
The concept of pastoral is also crucial: Howard’s End is slowing losing ground to the suburbs of London. Forster calls it the Age of Luggage, in which the English, no longer rooted to land, are reduced to nomads. Interesting in light of Marx’s stuff on the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism More locally, could be thought of in terms of Disareli’s “Two Englands.” that maintained a symbolic feudalism supposed to stem the cultural decline associated with capital flow.
Device vs. symbol: the wych-elm as organic symbol, the umbrella as a device that shed light on various social categories.
The ending is somehow too perfect. What is took to get to that ending: a couple deaths, an unwanted pregnancy, and an arrest.
Also, in terms of ethics, Forster seems to be playing with the fine line between personal and systemic failures–how doe they differ and how do they converge. Can we think of personal failures as the realm of morals, and systemic failures (doing something that’s “right” but nevertheless “wrong”) as the realm of ethics? Meg finds herself negotiating these questions often.
Connect to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which is supposed to be a re-writing of Howard’s End. My question from Dori Hale’s class:
If a novel is meant to stand in a complicated mimetic relation to the raw material of a shared world, then what is at stake when the raw material becomes (at least in part) a shared text? The arena of critique—that convergence of text and world—becomes doubled by the convergence of text and text. Smith’s project, I want to suggest, dramatizes the non-coincidental agreement between these two convergences. The image of a rectangle (a semiotic rectangle?) presents itself. Each novel exists in horizontal relation to their perspective worlds (England 1900/America 2000) and these two relations are in vertical relation to one another.
So, concretely, the reader is asked to mediate this rectangle with questions that are always doubled: 1) Is Smith accurately representing the politics of a small liberal arts faculty? 2) Is Smith accurately translating Forster’s portrait of early 20th-century English class dynamics into the tangle of race/class dynamics of a 21st century New England college town? The doubled-question often requires a doubled, internally fractured answer: where answering affirmative to the first requires answering in the negative to second, and visa-versa. This does two things:
1) It makes a case for the strong relevance of an historical text to our cotemporary world, but qualifies this claim by enacting a creative appropriation (reading/writing) of the text as the pre-condition for relevance. Read this way, On Beauty is a long allegory for the practice of good reading. I’m thinking here of folks like Miller, Derrida, and Guillory, all of whom claim that (close) reading is the ethical practice par excellence. Wouldn’t mind talking about this claim in context of Smith.
2) According to the introduction to Thinking Allegory Otherwise, a recent collection of essays published by Stanford UP (don’t recall it, I’ll know it was you!), “The standard definition for “allegory” is to say one thing and mean another. Allegory has always demanded that we think otherwise” (7). What is this otherwise? In the case of On Beauty, I think it might be those spaces of non-coincidence, when the rectangle I described earlier fails to contain the doubled mimesis of text-world/text-text. So, this second point dramatizes the failure of the first, and the novel becomes a way of measuring these failures.
Where does this happen in the text? This is a question that needs asking, because Smith’s novel demands that we hear “Where does this happen in the world” each time we ask it. I’m not up to the task just now.